Special Reports






Al-Qaida, or what it represents, was Sunni Islam’s response to Shiite radicalism. Sunni Islam which is much more numerous, has an altogether wider international reach and because of its links to Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, the Cold War and Pakistan, all of which have an impact on western interests, al-Qaida succeeded in embroiling the United States in new wars in the Middle East. Al-Qaida seemingly elevated the popularity of Islamic radicalism as an ideology for change in the Islamic world, in a way not seen since the Iranian revolution of 1979. In this case, the figure of the Shi’ite Khomeini, the Iranian supremo, was replaced by Osama Bin Laden and his Al-Qaida network. A tragic consequence of the popularity of Islamic radicalism is that governments throughout the Middle East have used this phenomenon as their excuse to resist calls to extend more political and social freedoms, while justifying the use of repressive police and security forces. Nonetheless, given the revived cultural relevance and the socio-economic links that have enabled the formation of grass roots Islamic movements, it is inevitable that Islamic politics will be an important component of any democratizing effort in the Islamic world.

The ‘Arab Spring’, presents a fresh existential problem for the infamous terrorist organization. The unprecedented political turmoil witnessed throughout the Arab world in 2011, appeared to have made al-Qaida irrelevant. The rather pathetic image of an ageing bin-Laden watching his own videos in a minimalist compound in Pakistan, serves as an apt metaphor for the failure of al-Qaida to achieve any sort of political change in the region; change, which it seems, was always within the people’s ability to demand. Even if it is still too early to see just what sort of change comes to the Middle East and North Africa - and whether it will be an improvement over the old order (or for that matter the extent of the people’s success, especially in Egypt), al-Qaida has failed and its brand of violence has failed. But will al-Qaida fade quietly, or will it take advantage of the West’s distaste for fresh adventures in the Middle East and emerging weaknesses in the ‘Spring’? Have al-Qaida or its franchisees found new frontiers to exploit?

One of the failures of al-Qaida was to focus excessively on the West, the very West that absorbed many migrants from majority Muslim countries who came to look for better economic and educational opportunities. Doubtless, al-Qaida was able to exploit the inevitable resentment that can develop among immigrant populations – a phenomenon that is not exclusive to Muslims. Rather, had al-Qaida been able to truly read the anger in the ‘Arab street’ it would have focused its activity against Arab governments themselves. Al-Qaida should have noticed, instead of targeting its almost risible propaganda, wrapped in medieval good-versus-evil rhetoric, against the West (and against Saudi Arabia, where the Kingdom’s financial clout was inevitably able to ‘buy out’ any potential opposition), that the reality was that people of the Arab world blamed their own governments for their troubles, rather than the West.

Al-Qaida promised virgins and rivers of honey in Paradise; the people wanted a decent living and dignity here on earth; not everyone can be expected to master the art of delayed gratification. Had al-Qaida targeted very tangible problems like corruption, unemployment, inadequate public administration and governance, which, incidentally, are just the type of problems addressed by United Nations development agencies, the organization would have gained much more influence and growth. These are the things that the protesters in Tahrir Square demanded in Cairo and in Homs, Tunis or Sana’a and these are the things being demanded in countries that have seen a more muted version of the Arab Spring such as Morocco, where existing political mechanisms have enabled the authorities to avert upheaval. Nevertheless, al-Qaida and its imitators cannot be entirely ruled out in the region as irrelevant, just yet. The ‘Arab Spring’ and its promise of democracy and better lives may be overly optimistic. Democracy in the West, is still changing and it has evolved over centuries; the Renaissance and the Enlightenment preceded democracy, which was itself tested by many brutal wars and ideological reactions (such as communism and fascism) over the decades. The expectations of the Arab people may have been raised too high; many of those people, it should be noted, are youth, particularly disillusioned and angry.

The gap between the people’s expectations and what the emerging Arab democracies can actually deliver, is where al-Qaida may yet find some ‘relevance’. The ‘Spring’ has already shown that Islamist parties have the potential to dominate the political landscape in all countries of the Middle East and North Africa. They have earned this advantage thanks to decades of semi-clandestine campaigning and grass roots activity in direct contact with the population, filling the wide gaps left by the State. Islamist parties have also become more modern, adopting a less ideological language and recognizing some practical concerns. The parties that will lead the post-Spring Arab world have an unenviable task; they have to meet overly high expectations. They have to provide jobs to a huge youth population, they have to eradicate decades of corruption, while investing in infrastructure and better social services. Arab governments face many odds in achieving this and there will no doubt be a period of protracted street protests. As disappointment consolidates, the Arab youth that took part in the non-violent demonstrations for change, may yet decide that violence is indeed necessary. They may also turn to more cultural interpretations of society and decide that the radical Islamism offered by al-Qaida, or the salafists is the solution. Al-Qaida, therefore cannot be entirely ruled out; it may yet find ways to exploit the disenfranchisement that characterizes so much of the population in the Arab world. Moreover, the lingering problem of Palestine contributes to promoting the good vs. evil (West vs. Islam) approach favored by al-Qaida.

Potential for Resurgence
The ‘Arab Spring’ has presented some prospects for a comeback of sorts; although, these very opportunities suggest the future of the organization will be more regionally fragmented and more parasitical than maverick. The organization has lost its leadership potential; it will thrive in areas marked by already existing conflicts and deep societal fractures such as the civil war in Libya, or the revolt in Syria. In Libya, some of the leaders of the uprising against the Qadhafi regime had gained direct fighting experience in Afghanistan. Yemen, with its two ongoing civil wars has also served as a haven for al-Qaida; however, in the latter case, rather than participating in an already existing revolt, al-Qaida has used the country’s mountainous and rugged terrain to hide and plan attacks to be launched in the West or domestic targets. The warfronts, whether, Yemen, Libya or Syria then provide al-Qaida with opportunities for hiding and growing, in accordance with specific local realities. The prompt availability of weapons in protracted conflicts and the difficult to monitor terrain then offer al-Qaida the conditions for growth. One of the main areas for such growth has been the Sahel, or that area that separates the Sahara Desert region across North Africa from the jungles of Central Africa.

Algeria: the First Modern Arab Experiment in Democracy - and a Microcosm of the Arab World and its Problems
The experience of Algeria is very informative in understanding where al-Qaida’s potential for a prolonged appeal resides. In this sense and it is not surprising that one of the most active branches of al-Qaida derives directly from it. Algeria, before any of the other Arab states, was the first to experiment with democracy, holding elections in 1992. The success of radical islamist parties there, namely the Islamic Salvation Front (FIS) prompted the army to stage a de-facto coup, overthrowing the results and plunging the country into a civil war, that left more than 100,000 dead, the effects of which are still being felt today. Algeria is especially relevant as it is an important oil producing country, having greater prospects than some of its neighbors in absorbing malcontent. The combination of state economic dirigisme and an oil-based economy, and its pre-Arab Spring democratic experience, makes Algeria a model for the issues being confronted by Arab states in general. Interestingly, Algeria, having run through a full range of socio-economic revolts, has not been affected by the contagion of upheaval that took place in many Arab countries in 2011. Nevertheless, Algeria’s experience has spread beyond Algeria’s borders, as some of the groups that radicalized from the civil war morphed into what has become the most active branch of al-Qaida in the past few years. Indeed, North Africa and the Sahel region, particularly Mali, Mauritania and Niger have served as some of the main areas of activity for al-Qaida of the Islamic Maghreb (AQIM).

The failed modernisation effort in Algeria since its independence, was responsible for the politicization and radicalization of Islam in the 1980s, culminating in an electoral victory in 1992 and a subsequent civil war. The Islamic political alternative surfaced in the early ’80s in response to growing economic malcontent that resulted from IMF inspired re-structuring reforms that reduced the State’s capacity to absorb labor through industry and the bureaucracy. The already unsustainable problem of rural urban migrants worsened as poverty grew in the wake of the reforms. President Boumedienne promoted a State run economy based on industry and financed by crude oil, that offered very limited possibilities for significant private enterprise. Efforts to secularize society and the economy could be tolerated by the population so long as the State was able to continue to provide jobs and decent wages for its growing population. As in Egypt, however, economic restructuring efforts in the ’80s under President Benjedid exposed the fragility of his predecessor’s policies of unregulated and wasteful growth, and the State was forced to drastically reduce its economic functions leaving thousands unemployed and essential services, from legal to medical, in turmoil. Islamic organizations, including FIS (Islamic Salvation Front) substituted the State and civil society in supplying essential welfare, medical and even judicial services through popular courts that upheld Shari’a (Islamic law) to deal with cases in a speedier and more effective manner.

The decline caused several leading technocrats in the government of Benjedid to convert to the Islamist cause responding to the severe economic reforms, and the resulting loss of legitimacy and support that befell the State. One such leader, Abdelhamid Brahimi expected the Islamic alternative to divert Algeria culturally and economically within the Arab-Islamic sphere of influence, stressing that, the orientation to the ‘West’ had only produced increased dependency and unfair terms of trade. As the State’s secular program failed, opposition to secularism – and the increased adoption of Islamic values – acquired the symbolic meaning of opposition to the State. Fittingly, the economic reforms culminated in 1989 when many returned from the war against the Soviets in Afghanistan, the Arab-Afghans.

The explosive combination of widespread economic and cultural disenchantment, and suddenly unemployed Islamic warriors, inevitably produced a dangerous climate. Indeed, Algeria witnessed the most violent repercussions of the return of Arab-Afghans to their home countries from Afghanistan after 1989. The GIA – Islamic Jihad – took over the more moderate FIS Party by 1995 and were involved in the more serious acts of violence that de-stabilized Algeria after its 1991 elections. The numerous connections to France enabled GIA to spread its influence - and violence, in the West and elsewhere in North Africa. The GIA launched attacks in the West and was responsible for hijacking an Air France flight in France in 1994. A related group, the Groupe Salafiste pour la Prédication et le Combat (GSPC) evolved into what is now known as ‘Al-Qaida of the Islamic Maghreb’ (AQIM). The group has emerged as a continuation of Algeria’s GSPC insurgent group, which had been virtually eliminated in northern Algeria by a combination of sustained military offensive and a policy of reconciliation pursued by the Algerian government, with the effect of reducing the numbers of insurgents.

Iraq, Afghanistan and more recently Libya have helped radicalize and train fighters in guerrilla tactics; these wars – which have never really ended, not even in Libya where an eerie prospect of tribal and islamist tension remains – have been producing the ‘cannon fodder’ to supply al-Qaida and its offshoots for years to come. Such armies can take advantage of weaknesses in any given State and serve radical causes. Massive armed responses such as those launched by NATO in Afghanistan or Iraq through the deployment of massive numbers of troops and military hardware only help terrorists shift their theater of operations elsewhere. Big military victories then create the illusion that the radical insurgencies are defeated (and in this sense Iraq, as American troops have left, will prove to be a tough test). Insurgents have shown since just before Christmas 2011, that they are still able to deploy explosives in Baghdad, inflicting heavy casualties.

The Effects in the Sahel
The Sahel is a vast, empty, no man’s land, providing unique opportunities for all sorts of criminals and gangs that seek to operate below the radar screens of governments. It is an area of crisis and could be the true weak point for North African nations. It is unique in that just below the Maghreb – the nations of the Mediterranean littoral - it stretches 3,862 km (2,400 miles) from the Atlantic Ocean in the west to the Red Sea in the east, yet it is close enough to the Mediterranean to fall under the control of the relatively powerful security forces of the Maghreb nations. It is also unique in that it links the Atlantic Ocean, enabling drug traffickers from Latin America to have access to a zone that links Europe to the North, and the Middle East to the east. To the east, the Sahel reaches the Red Sea, which links several troubled nations from Sudan on the African continent to Yemen in the Arabian Peninsula.

This stretch of a dead zone, essentially home of a race of nomadic tribes, the Touareg, who challenge central authorities and governments and which have grievances of their own, reache several nations, in an area of almost 1.2 million square miles. The countries that qualify as Sahelian nations include Senegal, Mauritania, Mali, Burkina Faso, Niger, Nigeria, Chad, Sudan, Somalia, Ethiopia, and Eritrea, and to a much limited extent Algeria with its very southern tip. In these countries, there is no shortage of crises and grievances which offer al-Qaida fertile ground for recruiting disgruntled agents. The die-hard militants of the GSPC managed to pledge allegiance to Al Qaeda Central, enabling the creation of a North Africa wide entity, rallying Islamist militants of the entire region toward a common cause. This is exactly what Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula is doing. While their numbers may be small, AQIM continues to survive precisely because it has found a shelter in the vast desert of the Sahel, from which it kidnaps tourists, stages attacks against military installations, and business facilities. It also fuels the crisis in the north by supplying weapons it purchases in the region, with money earned in kidnappings, extortions, drug trafficking, and other crimes.

Maghreb nations have spent little resources securing the region, despite the substantial implications such neglect could have in the future. Very little has been done in ways of understanding the social, economic and political environments that are relevant in securing the Sahel. Because of the very nature of the nomadic Sahel populations and the weak governments there, a state or political identity has failed to take shape, and allegiances and interests remain tribal. While the region has attracted interest because of its mining potential from gold to uranium and diamonds, poverty is widespread and a source of trouble, further exacerbating the security aspects. The states are divided and sometimes even feuding with one another, so much so that there is a substantial lack of coherence in terms of vision about the future of the region.

This lack of coherence has meant that the West and more specifically the United States and France, has been more active seeking to control the region than the North African nations themselves. The West (and not only) imports oil from Africa and has a direct economic stake in securing the continent and the sub zone of the Sahel where troubles are brewing. France remains involved because of the mineral resources but also because so much of the Sahel is part of its colonial legacy. However, securing the Sahel will increasingly become the priority of North African nations, because of the latter’s own growing internal security issues. Algeria has probably the biggest stake as a front line Maghreb nation, but Libya as well, given it borders Niger, Chad and the highly troubled Sudan. For Algeria, border nations are also the fragile states of Niger, Mali, Mauritania and the contested Western Sahara, all of which remain unstable. These crises in the Sahel countries are fueled by conflicts between ethnic groups, heightened poverty, and governments that if not altogether legitimate, are essentially weak and without resources. Because of these internal issues, perhaps the biggest problem that has yet to be fully quantified is the issue of human migration. According to various experts, uncontrolled migration and people trafficking amount to 90% of the revenue sources of organized crimes recorded in the Sahel region. Moreover, there is a ‘terrorism’ component as well.

The Libyan civil war has raised the stakes in the Sahel, because of an unprecedented proliferation of weapons and former pro-Gaddafi fighters. This along with continued criminal activity is setting up the Sahel region for further destabilization. The collapse of the Qadhafi regime has left an important vacuum in countries such as Niger and Mali, which relied on his aid; Qadhafi may even be said to have provided some sort of stability. As hated as he may have been and as odd as his own governance was in Libya, Qadhafi offered assurance to the West and his regional neighbors alike. Qadhafi’s Libya was deeply worried by terrorism of the kind represented by AQIM. In the Sahara and Sahel regions, Qadhafi succeeded in obtaining, through the largesse afforded by oil exports, the loyalty of many Touareg tribes, gaining sources for information and actionable intelligence on what was happening in the region.

Now, the collapse of the Qadhafi regime and the Jamahiriya has made the Sahel into a powder keg, according to Niger’s foreign minister Mohamed Bazoum. In Niger, Mali, Mauritania and Chad, the Libyan war has fueled the proliferation of weapons that used to be controlled by the Libyan military into the hands of terrorists and criminal gangs. Mauritania’s President, General Mohamed Ould Abdel Aziz confirmed those statements when he said, “there is a massive outflow of weapons that has left Libya benefiting Al-Qaeda in the Maghreb (AQIM) operating in the Sahel zone.” It is doubtful that the new weak transitional authorities had the ability to secure weapons storage facilities in the areas under its control, after the collapse of Tripoli at the end of August and early September 2011. The fighters were able to plunder arms deposits, removing such weapons as surface-to-air and antitank missiles, as well as rifles, machine guns, mortars and explosives. The weapons have ‘vanished’ and it is likely that they have been smuggled outside the country and have found, or are finding their way into the hands of the various terrorist organizations active in the Sahel and beyond, including such groups as Boko Haram in Nigeria and the Shabab in Somalia, both of which launched attacks in December against civilian targets. It may not be excessive to assume that AQIM is involved with such groups, raising the risk that the entire Northern half of Africa has the potential to become a substantial zone of conflict. Apart from the proliferation of military hardware, there is also the increased availability of ‘labor’.

Hundreds of former pro-Qadhafi fighters, from Libya itself and from other African countries who are now jobless, have been returning to their countries of origin in the Sahel, with their weapons. The government of Niger has already warned about the return of many militiamen, including Touaregs who fought for Gaddafi in the so-called “Arab Legion”, the ones who many Libyan former rebels (now in government), described as mercenaries. Sahel governments could use the excuse of the Libyan crisis and its results to crush autochthonous populations with separatist leaning, such as the Touareg. In Mali, the government has grown worried by the sudden return of thousands of migrant workers, both those escaping the Libyan conflict and those who took an active role in it. As for the latter, Malian authorities are worried by the fact that the fighters have brought their weapons with them, weapons that can be used to challenge the state through the formation of militias that are perhaps better armed than the government’s own army, clearly a menace for the whole region.

The Qadhafi regime’s demise has also meant that groups formerly under its protection - implying partial control, are now forced to adopt novel methods of funding to sustain their activities. This has made for the establishment of formerly unlikely relationships such as that the Western Sahara’s separatist organization, the Polisario Front, (which renounced terrorism a few decades ago), has been linked to AQIM. Armed men from the Polisario Front are believed to have conducted operations in northern Mali, kidnapping foreign aid workers. Elements of Polisario, then, would appear to have become more involved in the kind of criminal activity and its apparent collusion with AQIM – the kidnapped persons are typically handed to AQIM after being captured by others - that is making the Sahel more unstable. Moroccan government authorities, which obviously ‘has an axe to grind’ here, claim that the Tindouf refugee camp (within Algeria, close to the Moroccan borders and where the foreign aid workers were kidnapped), is one of the major recruiting venues for AQIM.

The increasingly active Polisario Front is now starting to create problems for Algeria, one of its main protectors, as well. Algeria’s interior minister, Dahou Ould Kablia, raised many questions about Algeria’s security when he declared that the Polisario Front has virtual control of an area of Algeria’s vast territory close to the Moroccan border, (namely the area near the Tindouf camp). Since Algeria together with Qadhafi’s Libya, sided with and sponsored the Polisario against Morocco, it may be that there is a weak link in Algerian intelligence itself, coupled with eroding control, which is creating fertile conditions for such groups as AQIM or others to seek to recruit and coerce people living in the Tindouf Camp, where over 90,000 refugees reside. The Tindouf controversy has generated fallout in Algeria, where the government and the military/intelligence department is concerned about its security reputation, and would rather keep stories about AQIM-Polisario collusion under tight control.

There is more evidence of instability and of growing links between AQIM and other violent organizations down in Central Africa as well; since last Christmas the northern Nigerian group Boko Haram (literally meaning ‘Western education is Forbidden’) has been especially active, targeting Christian areas in Abuja and other areas of the North. Dozens have been killed in Boko Haram organized terror in Nigeria in the first week after Christmas.

Sahel: Tensions from Illegal Migration and Drugs
Ethnic feuds are also fueling tension in the region. Any time a crisis erupts either in Mali or in Niger involving the Touareg tribes - neighboring Algeria for example, is affected one way or another. This is because the same tribes that are quarrelling in the south have links and relationships in Algeria and elsewhere in the desert. International influence in the region has been growing, complicating the scene, and each government, whether they are the Maghreb nations individually, France, the United States, even Israel have been looking for ways to influence events there. In such a massive security vacuum, it is not surprising that all sorts of criminals and others, have been looking to establish a foothold in the region. This is not a phenomenon exclusive to oil and mining companies; criminal gangs and terrorists are even more active.

South American drug cartels have been using West Africa, with a direct link to the Sahel, as a convenient thoroughfare to ship cocaine and other drugs to Europe. In March 2009, President Joao Bernardo Vieira of Guinea Bissau was killed in what many believe to have been a revenge attack, after the army chief of staff died in an explosion a few hours earlier, likely motivated by the international drug trade. Guinea-Bissau has become one of the main entry ‘ports’ for smuggling South American drugs (arriving via specially outfitted aircraft that fly low over the Atlantic to evade radar) to the almost unpopulated Sahara, from where the drugs go north to Europe. A Boeing 727 loaded with cocaine seemingly crashed in the desert of Mali last December, suggesting the trade is booming. The cocaine travels toward Libya or Morocco using the same routes as those used by human traffickers and arms smugglers. While the drug trade itself acts as a destabilizing element, AQIM participate in the trade as they seek funds to buy weapons. American intelligence authorities believe that the Polisario may also be taking advantage of the security vacuum left in the aftermath of the Libyan war, by participating in the growing Sahel drug trade. Yemen is also becoming an important area for drug smuggling, given its 1,200 mile (2,000 km) long coastline and difficult-to-control terrain. Many foreigners have settled in Yemen, using it as a transfer point for drugs heading to the Gulf States.

Yemen and Al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP)
Saudi Arabia, the world’s largest oil producer, fears the instability in northern and southern Yemen that this situation is creating, will enable insurgent groups establish footholds through the resulting security vacuum. Saudi Arabia and other Gulf Emirates are concerned by the prospect of Yemen becoming another Afghanistan, which has had such a destabilizing effect on neighbouring Pakistan. Much like Afghanistan, and adding to security concerns, Yemen is desperately poor; the population face a number of health and economic difficulties, such that the Yemeni government is always on the brink of having to confront a disaster. The intensifying war near the Saudi border will only worsen these problems and Yemen, could become yet another failed state over-run by extremists, in an area already marked by the presence of that better-known failed state of Somalia. Saudi Arabia also fears that the conflict in northern Yemen, involving Shiites could inflame tensions in their own northeastern oil producing region, tensions that have been increasing over the past few years in conjunction with the overall Sunni-Shiite crisis, that has been brewing between Saudi Arabia and Iran.

Another attempt to deliver explosives, (disguised as copier toner cartridges), by aircraft - for the purposes of targeting the addressees (two synagogues in the Chicago area), or to cause a mid-air explosion - recalls a similar episode that occurred in Christmas of 2009. A young Nigerian man, Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab intended to down Delta Airlines flight 253 flying from Amsterdam to Detroit. The episodes placed Yemen and al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula (AQAP) on the front pages of newspapers around the world. While these attempts failed, given the fast reaction of passengers and the crew in the Christmas plot, and a thorough check by customs officials at London Heathrow, the impact has been important in that the visibility of AQAP has increased considerably as a result. Although no one was harmed, Al-Qaeda derived a good media coup whether it planned it or not.

The attempt to spread terror, however, has also drawn a lot more attention toYemen, its poverty, mismanagement and its potential to become a new haven for international terrorism, in a manner similar to Afghanistan, or even Somalia. In 2009, AQAP launched a suicide-bombing attempt to kill the then Saudi Interior Minister, Prince Nayef!

Abdulmutallab of the Delta Airlines incident, said that he obtained the explosive device and training in Yemen; inevitably, the conclusion is that the terrorist threat from Yemen has grown. The fact that, some 40% of Yemen’s 23 million inhabitants live on less than two dollars a day, suffering from hunger and enduring a number of chronic social problems, adds to the perception that Yemen is a failed state. The perception of Yemen as a candidate for failure is not new, and in this sense, it has been justified.

Yemen has confronted secession and civil war throughout its recent history. However, a number of converging sources of pressure are hampering the Yemeni government’s ability to manage them. The recent exacerbation of the secessionist conflict in the South, a Shiite-Houthi revolt in the North is being compounded by the depletion of oil and water resources and unsustainable demographic growth, making it harder for Yemen to recover. Yemen’s potential collapse is a source of great regional and international security concern – not the least of which is Yemen’s strategic position in the Bab al-Mandab strait at the mouth of the Red Sea. AQAP would find it easier to use the country as a base to launch or organize attacks, while making the country a more effective avenue for illicit arms proliferation.

Yemen is the poorest country in the Arab world; there is no investment in new oil exploration because of the high security risks for oil prospectors and crews. The World Bank has warned that Yemen’s oil supplies, which generate 90% of export revenue, will end by 2017. The government does not have an economic plan to deal with the ‘post-oil’ future, which is likely to be one of economic collapse. Considering that Yemen is confronted by tribal conflicts in the North, a secessionist revolt in the South, along with Islamic insurgents, who take advantage of the related weaknesses to set up bases, Yemen faces the prospect of becoming another Somalia, prompting the rise of piracy, black markets and compromising the safety of international shipping routes in the Red Sea. Saudi Arabia and the United States have been trying to avert Yemen’s collapse by helping the government restore some authority and stability. However, much of this effort has been military, which may worsen rather than improve the situation, especially in view of the recent sustained wave of protests in the country, that have been interpreted as part of the ‘Arab Spring’.

AQAP has been exploiting the major weakness of the Yemeni state, the rise of the tribe at the expense of the institution, in order to establish a safe haven and a base for their activity. It is said that the American born, and now defunct, leader of AQAP, Anwar al-Awlaqi, who masterminded the attempted bombing of airliners over the United States in December 2009, was exploiting tribal relationships to hide in Yemen’s Shabwa protectorate. It is very difficult for the state to coerce the tribes to hand over a member of the tribe, even if charged with terrorism, or a protected person. This particular aspect of Yemeni tribalism in the current regional context would not be so dangerous, had Yemen developed stronger institutions, including a stronger judiciary. One doesn’t have to be a member of AQAP to benefit, as many Yemenis resort to tribal justice in resolving disputes. The weakness of the state contributes to the strength of the tribe. In some cases, the government has had to intervene and there have been gun battles between the armed forces and some of the tribes in the past few years. As for future prospects, it is evident that military aid alone will not help Yemen confront the AQAP threat. The government must make progress in institution building as well to address the very structural mechanisms in society that favor the development of the alternative forms of power and influence that are the tribes. Nevertheless, the tribes have weaknesses.

The recent wave of protests around the Arab world has shown that neither the institutions nor the more traditional power structures have been able to contain the anger and unrest of one particular social group: that of youth. Youth in Yemen represent a very important percentage of the population. While all Arab countries are characterized by large percentages of youth, Yemen is the country where this phenomenon is highest, since 45% of the population is below 15 years of age. President Saleh has tried to use the tribes to quell youth, but even the tribes have not come to terms with this social and demographic phenomenon. Many of the protesting youth are urban and educated; they are no longer farmers. Meanwhile, many tribal sheikhs, while exercising some of their traditional influence, have also urbanized, living in the cities.

Syria, which has been immune to al-Qaida for the past decade, offers one of the most fertile grounds for its establishment in the near future. Not to be discounted as a potentially self-inflicted act to impress the Arab League observation mission, following their arrival in Syria, as some Western analysts have suggested, the suicide bombing targeting the security headquarters on December 23, 2011 has the hallmarks of an al-Qaida style terrorist attack. Syria is not accustomed to suicide bombings; indeed, neither was Iraq, before the American-led war attracted numbers of combatants from outside its borders to wage various kinds of Jihadist pursuits. Hezbollah in Lebanon had formally advised the Syrian government that al-Qaida members had infiltrated into Syria through the Sunni dominated Aarsal region of Lebanon. The Syrian government was quick to announce that the attack was carried out by al-Qaida. The government can certainly exploit the attack to warn the West that a collapse of its authority in Syria would give way to the kind of anarchy seen in Iraq, in the wake of the American invasion and fall of Saddam Hussein and his Baath party. A Syrian government official even suggested that Syria could become the new ‘Afghanistan’, serving as a base for terrorism and for a terrorist backed government.

There is certainly room for scepticism in this scenario and the al-Qaida connection. Given the fierce struggle between the regime and an increasingly mixed group of opponents, it is predictable for the Syrian leadership to appeal for Western understanding, by throwing the al-Qaida ‘brand’ into the mix, in order to gain some understanding, if not support. Oddly, or cynically, after blaming everything from liquids on flights, to any bomb exploding in the Middle East onto al-Qaida, Western governments have derided the al-Qaida allegations launched by Syria, but there are lingering questions that suggest such derision may be premature. The Free Syrian Army (FSA) is a collection of mercenaries and fighters from Syria and other countries, with foreign funding, that has infiltrated Syria from Turkey. Added to them are the deserting Sunni soldiers, with their weapons, from Iraq’s army, that having already had military training, have been their most useful recruits. This phenomenon, along with the smuggling of weapons from Lebanon, Turkey and Jordan has also been documented. Whether or not, the al-Qaida claims are truthful, the FSA and the chaotic situation in Syria are fertile ground for terrorist groups such as al-Qaida, just as Iraq was (and continues to be). If anything, it is surprising that it has taken this long for suicide bombings to occur in Syria. Beyond the scepticism, suicide bombings, whether carried out by al-Qaida or Hamas, usually reflect guerrilla groups’ frustration in their struggle against superior force. For the time being, the Syrian army, despite some defections and international pressure, remains strong and maintains the upper hand.

Radical Islamism has represented the search for a formula for political organisation, that is both indigenous and culturally relevant to the Middle East. Al-Qaida had not only embroiled the West and Arab governments, if not yet the United States, in a new war in the Middle East, but have seemingly elevated the popularity of Islamic radicalism as an ideology for change in the Islamic world, in a way not seen since the Iranian revolution of 1979. Khomeini was replaced in the imagination of the disaffected, by Osama Bin Laden and his Al-Qaida network.

A tragic consequence of the popularity of Islamic radicalism, is that governments throughout the Middle East have used this phenomenon to resist calls to extend more political and social freedoms, while justifying the use of repressive police and security forces. The Arab Spring, and its non-radical origins and demands, however, have challenged this notion. The Arab Spring has also challenged the cultural relevance of Radical Islam as a tool to promote political change, as Islamic politics have become the leading component of the democratizing effort in the Arab world. Nevertheless, al-Qaida has not disappeared and the conditions exist for its resurgence, even at the level of ‘franchisees’.

There are vast areas of land lacking authority in the Sahel or in Yemen that give shelter to terrorists, who are free to train, plan and launch attacks. There is also continued and fresh political turmoil that attracts militant combatants, helping al-Qaida to grow.

Ultimately, should the Arab Spring fail to meet the people’s expectations, it could lead to a revival of radical alternatives, where political Islam might have to live with militant Islamic terror, as seen in Iraq and elsewhere. Until this is resolved it suggests that al-Qaida has not yet been defeated. There is little doubt, for example that Islamic militants from Afghanistan are working their way up through the empty spaces of Central Asia, aiming for the disturbed ethnic Moslem states, in Southern Russia.

But al Qaida has imitators and disciples without necessarily having organizational links, as with some European Islamic extremists –indeed this make it harder for the specialist police who seek to track them down and put them behind bars, before they can do too much damage.

Al Qaida maybe something of a spent force, with the amount of leadership losses they have sustained, and the fact that after all this time their international networks may well be compromised. Nevertheless the ‘brand name’ has its own potency and inevitably we can expect to see that it will continue to be deployed by militants far and wide.